Stim is short for, “self-stimulating behavior.” Common stims are: rocking, pacing, hand flapping, hair twirling and pulling and other behaviors which may or may not be socially acceptable.
Stims often draw stares and disapproval from those outside of the autism spectrum, which doesn’t help the autistic person who is trying to fit in and socialize.
The autistic person uses stimming as a way to relieve stress, calm emotions or relieve pain. Some stims can be controlled, but if they are not harming anyone or creating a dangerous situation, it is best to let them continue.
When stress or other over stimulating factors, become overwhelming, stimming will begin. This is a way to diffuse the emotions and prevent a meltdown which cannot be easily stopped once it has begun.
Most stims, like rocking or pacing are harmless. Others like hair pulling or hitting the head, with hands or on a wall or floor, can be dangerous and cause injury.
These should, of course, be stopped, but it is important to remember that the stress is still there. If an appropriate behavior cannot be substituted, a meltdown might be on the way.
Caretakers and mentors can look for and help autistic persons to use stimming appropriately, encouraging harmless stims and discouraging dangerous and inappropriate ones.
An autistic child may be encouraged to rock or sit in a rocking chair or swing. An adult may be given a place and time to pace or a textured piece of fabric to roll between the fingers.
Of course, there are times when stimming should be discouraged such as job interviews, but when the situation allows it, tolerance and acceptance are the best course of action.
Telling a person with autism not to stim is like denying an aspirin to a person with a headache.
The autistic body knows what to do to calm itself. Stimming is good medicine.